[ Caption: “Ami Miss Calcutta 1976” Ms. Sen—she is talking to a Maoist. With a red band on her head. Yes Ms. Sen, we may not know your “statistics” (Context: this Bangla song—ekhono to keu jaane na amar statistics) but we sure know how “independent” you are.]
Over the past three decades, the Left Front’s Red fortress in Bengal had acquired its aura of impregnability based on the Party’s absolute stranglehold over rural Bengal. While anti-incumbency, outrage at lack of development, atrocities like Bantala and Birati might have lead to the loss of a few seats in Kolkata and some impassioned editorials in Anandabazar from time to time, it remained so insignificant in the electoral scheme of things, that the Politburo Pilots merely shrugged them off as not something worth getting their tea cold over. This confidence stemmed from the strategic infiltration of the party into all the institutions of rural life —panchayats, police, business and district administration– all of whom could be expected to work synergistically to keep the rural populace “in line”.
And most importantly the confidence came from the strength of the Left Front’s cadre. Drawn initially from the “sarba-haras” (those who have nothing) and provided sustenance through aggressive land reforms achieved through a combination of legislative and extra-constitutional means (armies of landless laborers putting up red flags on the land they cultivated shouting slogans like “Langol jaar jomi taar” [The person who draws the plough owns the land]), the party apparatchik became the Left front’s eyes and ears on the ground as well as their muscle. A quick way to identify the party bosses: just look for the shiny new “pukka houses” and there you have them. Over the years, the old feudal order in the village was replaced by this cadre raj, many of whom had graduated from being peasants to “contractors”, who lorded over the population with their rule backed up by the legal immunity granted to them by the compliant state administration.
The recent incidents at Lalgarh should be seen primarily as a desperate attempt by those left outside the ambit of the Front’s largess to lash out at the oppression unleashed over the decades by the cadre-police combine. From its violent targetting of party offices and party “key men” to the insistence of the villagers for the SP to rub his nose in the ground in front of everyone their intent is obvious.
Payback for the humiliation, the summary arrests and brutality.
This is of course not the first time that villagers have tried to revolt against the Party. But in 2009, with the twin blows of Nandigram and Singur, the consequent migration of a significant part of the Party’s strongarm to the Trinamool, the ceaseless attack on the party not only by its traditional opponents but also by its long-time intellectual support-base for whom Buddha-babu and his cavorting with capitalists has been socialistic anathema and finally a series of electoral setbacks , the Left government has been the weakest it has ever been in the last three decades. Add to that the steadily growing power of Maoists who have brought AK47s to a region where the cadre have traditionally fought with machettes, country-made revolvers and home-made bombs and the opportunistic support provided by the Trinamool and only then one begins to realize why the local population, manipulated by the Maoist leadership, have backed themselves to essentially declare a revolt against the state government and the party infrastructure, which some may argue is one and the same thing in Bengal.
In order to understand why the violence has been so sustained and brutal in Lalgarh, one has to look at the historical traditions of the district of Medinipur (now divided into two) of which Lalgarh is a part. From the times of Aurangzeb when the village of Tilkuti in Medinipur invited the Emperor’s wrath for constructing a Hindu temple in direct contravention to his decree through to the Chuar tribal revolt in the nineteenth century and the independent Tamluk government which effectively set up a parallel administration (the rebellion being voluntarily ended on Gandhi’s request) in parts of Medinipur in 1942 to Nandigram in 2007, Medinipurians have been known for their strong streak of independence and a healthy mistrust for centralized authority.
Given this context, it is no surprise that the strongest challenge to the Left government’s authority has come from this district. In the case of Lalgarh, the seeds of the present violence was laid when a high-powered landmine blast triggered by Maoists nearly assassinated Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya at Shalboni near Lalgarh while he was returning after inaugurating the JSW Steel Plant in November 2008. With pressure to bring the culprits to book, the police then launched a repressive crackdown on the region detaining, humiliating and harassing the local population, many of whom were suspected of harboring Maoists or being active conspirators in the bomb blasts. This heavy-handedness provided the perfect fodder for local Maoists to inflame the local population and incite them to perpetrate violence against the local Left cadre. With the cadre in retreat, the Maoists then followed up with a chest-thumping “stop us if you can” march to Kolkata where the protesters brought to the city to a standstill and engaged in acts of vandalism.
The demands of the “people of Lalgarh” or more precisely the Maoists that are pulling the strings have been removal of police posts from the region and stopping of night-time raids, demands that have been met by the state government. In essence, what that has done is that it has further weakened the rule of law in the region, a region where a steel plant is to be constructed, and energized the Maoists whose recruitment in the region has by all accounts been stepped up as it seeks to entrench itself from Tirupati to Pashupati. The potential fallout of this on the state’s investment climate, especially after what transpired in Singur, is likely to be grave. Mamata Banerjee, whose contribution to making Bengal an attractive venue for investment is well known, is also caught in a quandary. Though she has endeavored to extract as much political capital out of Lalgarh as she possibly can, she has stopped short of walking shoulder to shoulder with Maoists, possibly because she realizes that should her dream of sitting on the Bengal throne be realized she would have to handle the consequences of absolute anarchy should the Maoists have their way. To her embarrassment, the agitators have called her bluff threatening her with boycott (i.e. no votes) unless she “breaks her silence”, with the accusation of staying silent being something Ms. Banerjee is usually not accustomed to hearing.
And so Lalgarh remains on boil caught in a ceaseless cycle of Maoist terror and retributive violence by state police with a part of the state spiraling down into anarchy in the near future looking to be a very real possibility.
Bengal bleeds as a result. It bleeds red. All shades of it.
But then again, what’s new?